Battle of Baghdad

6 April 2003

The Battle of Baghdad: How Bad? How Long?

By Gwynne Dyer

There is no way that the US army could lose the battle of Baghdad. The questions are how bad will it be, and how long might it last?

Right now, US commanders will be wresting with the temptation to try to capture Baghdad quickly. After all, they could run their tanks straight down the freeway from the airport into the city centre — nothing the Iraqis have could stop them — and seize all the bridges across the Tigris. Maybe that would bring the Iraqi people to the psychological ‘tipping point’ where they conclude that Saddam is a goner and make peace with their new rulers.

But the American commanders will be very conscious of their 300-mile (500-km) supply line back down to the Gulf, flanked by numerous cities where there are bypassed but still unconquered Iraqi fighters. And they will be worrying that something similar may have happened around Baghdad last week, for most of the Iraqi forces expected to defend the so-called ‘red line’, the 60,000 men of the six Republican Guards divisions, didn’t turn up for the battle.

You can hardly blame them, for they would have been crazy to accept battle on American terms, staked out in the open for US air power and artillery to destroy at no risk to themselves. Maybe they all deserted instead, but if Iraqi regular army units and Baathist militia are still resisting the invaders in Basra and Nasiriya two weeks after they were surrounded, is it safe to assume that the Republican Guards units just collapsed? Maybe most of them were not committed to the one-sided ‘battle’ on Baghdad’s southern approaches at all.

If the missing Guards units are waiting in the suburbs of Baghdad for the real battle to begin, then there could be 100,000 Iraqi troops available to defend the city, and there are fewer than 50,000 American troops around it. Despite all the air power and fire-power advantages that US forces enjoy, it would take a very bold American commander to commit such a small force to a full-scale attack on a city of at least five million people that is 27 miles (40 km) across. There will doubtless be more raids into the city to hide the fact that there is a pause (and to protect the reputation of US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who launched the attack with so few troops), but the pause is real.

At least twenty and perhaps as many as fifty Iraqi soldiers have died for every American fatality so far, which is only to be expected when a 21st-century army fights a 1970s-vintage force in open country. But the Iraqis have fought far more bravely and tenaciously than American planners expected, and in an urban environment the huge American technological advantages would be seriously reduced. So there will probably be no systematic attempt to take Baghdad until the reinforcements now on their way (which will more than double US combat strength around the city) reach the scene.

That takes us to late April, when the war will already be a month old. During the pause, Saddam’s regime might crumble — Washington hopes that it will — but what happens if it doesn’t? Saddam is obviously doomed, but if the Battle of Baghdad is very long and very horrible then some pro-American regimes elsewhere in the Arab world will be seriously at risk as well. Arab anger is growing, and the worst is yet to come.

Saddam Hussein dreams of Stalingrad-on-the-Tigris, a heroic defence of the city that ends in victory, but that is nonsense: the fighting won’t last five months, and he won’t come out of this alive. A better analogy, perhaps, is the Battle of Berlin in 1945, which lasted only 11 days. However, the Soviet attackers outnumbered the German defenders of Berlin by more than ten-to-one, which is a far greater edge than Americans will ever have in Baghdad, and the Russians still lost 78,000 soldiers. 200,000 Germans were killed.

Whatever happens in Baghdad will be on a far smaller scale, and the ‘kill ratio’ will doubtless remain hugely in the American favour — but even a battle that killed only ten Iraqis for every dead American would soon alienate US public opinion, and that is not out of the question. “An urban environment is the great equaliser,” said retired Israeli general Shlomo Brom of the Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv recently. “You can’t utilise your superiority in training and equipment.”

The US army has consulted the Israelis about street-fighting, drawing on their experience in Palestinian cities and camps, and has even bought armoured bulldozers from Israel in case it needs to ‘widen the streets’, so to speak, in the congested central quarters of old Baghdad. But nothing erases the fact that high-tech armies lose most of their edge when the average range of engagement comes down to less than fifty yards (metres). Both the technologies and the tactics get very basic: a senior US officer recently compared warfare in cities to a knife fight in a phone booth.

And the worst problem with street-fighting is the civilian casualties, inevitable but unpardonable, solidifying Iraqi opinion against the invasion and rousing hatred and fury elsewhere in the Arab and Muslim world. The United States advantage in material terms is so huge that it could not lose the war even if its commanders did everything wrong, but it is in grave danger of losing the peace.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“You…all”; and “TheUS…booth”)